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A Painful Entry ... in the journal of academic life
on 18 June 2004
Coming From Behind - a title which suggests definite Tom Sharpe oops-there-go-my-bloomers shenanigans. And indeed it does open with the main character Sefton Goldberg - who has all Jacobson's usual characteristics: Jewish (check) academic (check) and would-be writer (check) - in flagrante delicto, hoping he has locked his study door as his bare backside winks at the Yale lock and, he fears, any imminent visitor. But it's not about sex, or relationships, for once, or not primarily. It's a sort of hymn of despair to provincial academic life, all the great - or at least not proven otherwise - thinkers stranded in places like Wrottesley Polytechnic, where Sefton teaches, while hankering after a fellowship at Cambridge. The powers that be in the Polytechnic (and the existence of that term dates the novel already) have decided to twin it with the equally failing non-league Wrottesley Football Club, to save them all a bit of money and share facilities. The novel then flits back and forward with Sefton's past and present as he seeks to escape his dingy flat and dingy job. Coming From Behind shows Jacobson as a real writer's writer - a position which was once disparagingly dismissed as being akin to a gentleman's gentleman - with his half-page sentences, no care (or flair) for plot and determinedly unpopulist dialogue. It's no masterpiece but frequently funny and I found myself able to just bask in the flawless writing for pages at a time, flicking back in wonder at how damned consistently clever he is.